Before coming to Richmond, Heather Thornton, ’12, had never traveled out of the country. Now she is graduating with experiences abroad in four different countries and a Rangel Fellowship in her future.

Thornton said that one of the things that attracted her most to Richmond was its strong study abroad program. To her, it seemed like an important component of so many student careers.

Her sophomore year, Thornton saved her income from being a resident assistant to participate in a spring break service trip to Guatemala, where she and other students built stoves for women in the country’s highlands and completed an arts project for children in a newly built school.

“Guatemala set the foundation for a career track of international service for me,” Thornton says. “This trip was my first experience at the grassroots level, collaborating with people completely different from myself for a common cause. It gave me a passion for service that extended beyond my comfort zones — I simply had to travel again.”

She spent the following summer in Seville, Spain where she practiced her Spanish. Coinciding with her stay was Spain’s first World Cup win — an event that unified the country and made her experience unique, Thornton says.

“I absolutely loved the excitement surrounding such a momentous occasion and it left me with a newfound respect for soccer and the passion of the Spanish people,” she says.

Thornton switched gears in the fall of 2010 to study abroad in India with a friend and fellow Richmond student, Nikolina Talijan, ’12. Thornton says this experience was her most challenging, but also her most rewarding.

“We truly learned to live life in a manner different in every way from anything we've ever known,” she says. “Along the way, we rode elephants, learned Hindi, interned for an NGO in a rural village, traveled throughout the country's landscape, and acquired an understanding of ourselves and the world.”

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was the last destination during Thornton’s senior year. In Brazil, she said she got a true opportunity to observe, analyze, and experience constructions of identity very different from those in the United States.

“I got a chance to engage in more intimate cultural connections than I had in the previous countries I went to,” Thornton says. “I took an Afro-Brazilian dance class that — in addition to teaching me some cool moves — enabled me to make connections with people from all facets of Brazilian life.”

Thornton has always tried to pick places that would benefit her in different ways, she says.

After traveling, studying, and living abroad, Thornton said she’s gained a new perspective on the world and her place in it. Her time abroad helped make her a successful candidate for the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship.

The Rangel program aims to prepare college graduates for careers in the Foreign Service. Awardees spend the first summer doing a congressional internship and the program subsidizes graduate school tuition. After completing graduate school and interning for an American embassy or consulate abroad, Thornton will spend at least three years in the Foreign Service.

“I'm super excited for the opportunity the Rangel Fellowship presents to me and I'm even more excited about the very real likelihood of becoming a Foreign Service officer in the near future,” she says. “I'm ready to represent my country and to make use of all the skills of acquired during my time here at the University of Richmond.”